Phoenix Far From Winning
It is almost hard to believe but the Phoenix Coyotes (dating back to the days as the Jets) have not won a playoff series in almost 20 years. This is during an era where there have been only 3 repeat champions, 5 teams that have played in back to back finals and 9 expansion teams added where 6 have won a playoff series, 3 have gone to the final and 1 has won a cup. In fact, the Yotes have as many series wins in their 26 season history as the 02/03 Minnesota Wild. Suffice to say the Coyotes are due.
But the wait is far from over as the current Coyotes are nowhere near a position to compete.
The main problem has been a very poor draft record. Since the team moved to Phoenix the best player they drafted was waived through the league (Daniel Briere). The team has only one of their own draft picks prior to 2001 still with the team (Shane Doan). They actually have no one of consequence from their 2003 draft and plenty of first round busts that include:
1998 – Patrick Desroucher
1999 – Scott Kelman and Kiril Safranov
2000 – Krys Kolanos
2001 – Jacob Koreis
Even 2002, Fredrik Sjostrom has not done a whole lot to get the Coyotes excited, and their 2004 pick which was 5th overall was used on a relative unknown in Blake Wheeler. He may still turn out ok, but there are other forwards picked in the first round who are much further along that Wheeler. Rob Schremp and Alex Radulov were scoring leaders in the CHL, Travis Zajac and Drew Stafford starred in US college, while Radislav Olesz, Alex Picard and Wojtek Wolski have already played in the NHL this year. Kyle Chipchura was awesome at the WJC.
The Coyotes are not a very deep organization and it has resulted in GM Mike Barnett and coach Gretzky to constantly seek out talent from outside. This past season was full of roster turnover with players in and out of Phoenix on a regular basis, sometimes twice (Jeff Taffe). It does nothing for team chemistry or stability which the Coyotes need. But when you draft poorly, this is the end result. Even the farm team was poor finishing in last place.
So what are the Yotes to do now? It would help if they could solidify their goaltending. Curtis Joseph did an admirable job and showed quite a few people he is not quite finished. However Cujo is not the long term solution. That may be young David Leneveu but only time will tell if that holds true. Leneveu was solid backing up Joseph and filling in for Brian Boucher. He went back to the farm and did a good job their too for a bad team. He should at least have 1 of the 2 jobs in net next season. There is a good chance Cujo will return. He will at least keep them competitive most nights. But if Leneveu does not pan out, they will need to address their goaltending future. There is little else in the organization.
Gretzky has turned the blueline into a much more mobile group. Obviously he has noticed the need for it after 1 year of the new NHL. They are a young bunch that will cause the Yotes to have to endure some growing pains. Keith Ballard is a terrific young blueliner to build the defence around. He will be running the offence there for years and adding a bit of sandpaper to the team as well. He is future captain material.
Like Ballard, Zbynek Michalek emerged as a real quality player in his first year. He really impressed as a rookie being a plus player and showing excellent offensive potential. Him and Ballard should be a very good point duo on the PP for years.
Also around for offence are veterans Paul Mara and Derek Morris happy. Mara led the defence in goals and points. He owns great size yet skates and moves the puck well. If he could only be better defensively could he be a top end blueliner. His defensive play can be shoddy at times and he is soft.
Morris is not big but is much more willing to mix it up physically. But his game is also offence as he has a great point shot and a great set of wheels. By signing Morris to a pretty rich contract, the team has plenty of faith in him and want him as a big part of their future.
The team made a good move getting rid of Petr Nedved for Dennis Seidenberg. It gave them yet another puck moving blueliner. With all these skilled defencemen, someone might be moved. The most logical candidate is Mara. He may be able to fetch a goalie, maybe a stay at home blueliner or a scorer up front.
The Yotes may find their stay at home blueliner within as the team is high on Matt Jones, Matthew Spiller and Logan Stephenson. Jones is the best of the bunch for now. He did not look out of place in a short stint with Phoenix this season and should get a long look next year. He is very steady and poised. Stephenson is a more rough and tumble player. He showed decent offensive potential too. He may be a couple of years away. Spiller is a 6-5 monster. The team loves his size but it is not known if he is quick enough to match the speed in the NHL. Time will tell.
With a more mobile defence, this should be a big help in getting the puck to the forwards. The offence up front is built around 3 players. You have the power game of captain Shane Doan. There’s the finesse game of Mike Comrie and then there’s Ladislave Nagy who can offer a bit of power with finesse. Doan is their leader at both ends of the ice and is counted on to score big goals. Comrie’s name came up in trade rumours all year but he is the type of player who could flourish in the opened up NHL. Nagy got hurt last year and it crippled the team. He is the Coyotes best player and most dangerous forward. He can do it all with speed, skill, great hands and grit. He just needs to stay healthy.
The Yotes need to find some scoring support. Geoff Sanderson ended up with 25 goals but he is not the answer. He is far too inconsistent. They will probably let him walk in the summer. A couple of Russians, Oleg Saprykin and Oleg Kvasha are even more inconsistent. The two of them ooze talent, but lack any type of work ethic or desire. Knowing the impatience of coach Gretzky, it is likely he will have those two on a short leash to the doghouse.
It will be interesting to see how the team uses Mike Johnson as he filled a variety of roles from checking winger, to top line centre to secondary scorer. Steve Reinprecht was a solid trade deadline acquisition and was rewarded with a multi year deal. He should give the team a solid 2nd line centre, albeit another small soft player up the middle. I believe that is where Dave Scatchard comes in as he is big, plays rugged and adds a much needed physical element to the team. He can add some offence too.
But beyond Scatchard and Doan, the Yotes are soft. The team used the likes of Tyson Nash, Josh Gratton and Steve Gainey but they are 4th liners at best for a couple of shifts a period. The team needs some of their regulars willing to mix it up and go to the net.
The team has some OK young forwards but not many of them. They wasted so many draft picks they are basically starting from scratch. The team acquired several first round busts or suspect prospects from other organizations such as Eric Chouinard, Pavel Brendl, Taffe, Saprykin, Kvasha, Yanick Lehoux just to give the organization some semblence of depth. But in the end, they will need to do that themselves with homegrown prospects.
Sjostrom is one of two Phoenix draft picks who are regulars. But even he did not light up the scoresheet despite a decent skill level. That needs to change for the Yotes to go further. Wheeler gives them hope as he has a nice combination of size, skill and nice hands. If he can put it all together he could be a real decent finisher. But it is going to take time as he just finished his freshman year in College and may be a few years away. He was afterall drafted out of US high school, which is not a breeding ground for NHL prospects.
Also on the horizon is their 2005 first rounder Martin Hanzal who is a big skilled centre who can play rough. A kind of Michel Handzus/Bobby Holik type. Enver Lisin is a lightning bolt on ice. The young Russian is a great skater is an asset in the new NHL. He needs to get his skills to match his skating to get there however. Otherwise he may end up like former Bruins prospect Martin Samuelsson who is still one of the fastest hockey players around who cant do much else but skate.
Turning these youngsters into players will take time. The current regime will need to show the patience and show the ability to be able to develop their prospects, not just pick them and see them thrive in another organization. It is a cultural change that the desert dogs will need to accomplish if they wish to succeed. They should at least try it as not much as worked for them lately.
The Coyotes have some nice pieces here and there but have plenty of holes on their current roster that need to be filled. In the current NHL, goaltending can take you a long way and they need to solidify that spot before moving forward. Coach Gretzky had them playing well in spurts, but the overall talent level just is not there to compete in the very deep Western Conference and more specifically the Pacific Division. Making the Coyotes into a better team will not happen overnight. It will take something pretty magical to get these Coyotes into a top notch team sooner rather than later. But dont count out the Great One. He has been performing hockey magic since he laced on a pair of skates and it would not surprise if he had a few more tricks up his sleeve.